On Saturday, 14 November 2020, the inspirational Argentineans claimed a win over the All Blacks, and the ten-point margin at fulltime means that this was a convincing win, not a fluke.
So how did the Argentineans, a team that went out in the pools last year after being smashed into submission by France and England, bounce back magnificently by beating the All Blacks?
Here are four factors behind this milestone in Argentinean rugby: team spirit, the attacking ploy, the defensive strategy and the points-oriented gameplay.
When upsets happen, they are almost always down to passion.
When Argentina played, they had so much intent, so much ambition, and the ferocious drive from them was simply commendable. The love they have for their nation. The passion they played with, hitting every ruck with vigour, punching the line hard. They trusted each other and advanced as one to overcome, in skipper Pablo Matera’s words, “the best side in the world”.
The kind of passion was epitomised in Matera explaining why he got into a scuffle. They won a penalty, but then some interference from the All Blacks was met by apparent aggression from Matera. This was not thuggishness or arrogance. This was drive. This was a look at the heart of every Argentinean on the pitch.
Matera pointed to the emblem of UAR on his jersey and said to the referee: “I play for my country”. This was not a mere cliche statement; this was the drive and the love of Argentinean rugby in Matera and the team that won them the game.
They interwove this passion with tactical prowess, managing the win.
Let us address their defensive strategy.
They know how the All Blacks try to recycle quickly and then exploit the defensive scramble to crack with a magical strike play. They take away the All Blacks’ greatest advantage by just holding up the attackers. They are a pack of big physical prime Argentinean beef. Tall, muscular, heavy – the perfect build for mauling the opposition. They held up the All Blacks and slowed down the ball by seconds for their defence to realign and neutralise the next phase.
The All Blacks played a Z-sequence of passing. A pass to a three-man screen pod and slide out the back to a distributor from the backline, who then passes to a carrying option. The All Blacks tried this all the time against Argentina.
At some point they had identified the passing Z, shooting in each time and killing play.
About their attacking ploys, they had two main forms of playing: off quick ball from Tomas Cubelli or off their mercurial playmaker Nicolas Sanchez.
Off Cubelli is so much about the No. 9’s fitness and passing. His passing is fast, accurate and deadly. His following of the ball is also excellent. He is always there at every ruck. This often buys the half-second for the phases to cross the gain-line and eventually the space for Sanchez to run strike plays.
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We saw flat distribution off Sanchez on one phase and him back into the game on another.
The All Blacks tried to rush him, but he kept on firing flat passes.
Here’s an example. He stands at first receiver and the All Blacks rush up, but he slings a flat pass out wide to a carrying option. His teammate makes some ground but was penalised for not releasing.
There are two notable examples of switches and loops. There was one switch run with Sanchez running a good line and putting away a no-look to an inside runner. There was another bit of play with him passing and looping around his teammate, doing some footwork and passing back in.
Off that we saw a move I would term as ‘forward ball-handling’. The ball had alternative distribution with Santiago Carreras slinging a wide pass to a series of loose forwards lined up in the wide channel, putting their man away with Rodrigo Bruni moving down the field.
One phase on from that they got a penalty.
Then we get to their set-piece attack. Poetry in motion.
Off a scrum they attacked with a flyhalf standing first receiver with two second receivers on either shoulder. Nicolas Sanchez has two realistic carrying options at his disposal: a centre on his inside and Pablo Matera on his outside. He scans the defence and drops a no-look pass to the centre on his inside shoulder.
Sanchez cleared the immense pressure from the All Blacks on many occasions, intelligently hoisting kicks or slinging good passes out wide.
I cannot get past their attack without mentioning their first try. After Sanchez’s switch run got them ground we saw the ball go back to Sanchez in the first receiver spot in a small space in the left side of the ruck. Sanchez reads the game, sees how poorly positioned the All Blacks are and has the nerve to put in a chip over the top. The lucky bounce and a second grubber from No. 8 Bruni sees Sanchez beat a number of All Black backs to score.
Onto the points-oriented game plan.
I know this sound damning, but the Argentineans were playing smart rugby. If you get a kickable penalty, go for the posts. This saw them play a little territorially. They had runners with good hands and a classy No. 9-10 combo. This saw them playing phases and advancing up the field.
When they got into opposition territory, if the opportunity presented itself, they took it. If not, and if the opposition had illegally disrupted them, they went for the points.
Their kicking game was high, hanging and short. This allowed runners to chase the ball and hopefully win it back, if not smash the catcher instantly.
Here is an example: Nicolas Sanchez does a ‘cross-kick’ into space. The All Blacks retain the ball, but the Argies got the ball back as they were there to get back the ball back through applying pressure.
Also, there was one occasion of Sanchez chipping over the top, intending his teammates to chase. Though the All Blacks got the ball back, they were able to pressure them.
They have many great jacklers and disrupted most breakdowns, getting over the ball well and holding the ball. Slowing the ball, they won penalties that were free three points. With a monster goal kicker in Nicolas Sanchez they could kick goals from anywhere within 55 metres – we saw Sanchez converting 50-metre penalty goals. This meant any penalty within the opposition half could be a shot at the poles and a very high chance of getting three points.
The Pumas were brilliant, and as much I hate to say this as an All Blacks supporter, they are deservingly likely to win the Tri Nations.